Figure Friendly: How to Teach Your ESL Students about Figurative Language

Figure Friendly: How to Teach Your ESL Students about Figurative Language

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

It’s something I heard often from my grandfather, and generally it’s a good policy, I think. But the English language can sometimes be uncooperative, at least in the minds of nonnative speakers. Even when an English speaker is saying what she means, she might not mean exactly what the audience hears. Figurative language takes the blame. Figurative language is creative language; it is using words in a nonliteral sense to get one’s meaning across. It’s meaning what you say but not saying what you mean. English has five basic types of figurative language: similes, metaphors, personification, idioms and hyperbole. Each is a distinct technique to make language richer and to paint more vivid pictures in the minds of the reader or listener. For ESL students, understanding and recognizing figurative language is essential to achieve fluency. Here are the main types of figurative language used in English and activities you can do with your students to practice them.

Get Amazing Results While Teaching All Types of Figurative Language

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    A simile makes a comparison between two items using the words like or as. The comparison makes a description more vivid or striking or easier to picture. A simile says to the listener that two things are similar. They key to recognizing a simile is identifying the word as or like in the comparison.

    • The man was like a prowling lion.
    • The man was as hungry as a bear.

    If you know what a hungry bear might be like, you can imagine what the man feels or how he is acting. This comparison paints a picture in the listener’s mind.

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    How to Teach Similes

    Give your students a chance to get out of the classroom and do some nature observation. Go on a short walk as a class or give your students a set amount of time to walk around you school grounds. Tell them to note any outstanding features of the landscape – tall trees, green grass, etc. After your walk, return to the classroom and have students write ten phrases using adjectives that describe a natural element that they saw. Once their sentences are complete, remind your students that similes compare two items to paint a picture for the reader or listener. Show your students how to take a descriptive phrase using an adjective and turn it into a simile. Starting with the phrase “a tall tree” have students volunteer other items that are tall: a skyscraper, a giant, etc. Then use one of those objects to transform the descriptive phrase into a simile: the tree was as tall as a skyscraper. Have each student rewrite five of his descriptive phrases as similes in this way. Then ask students to share what they have written with the class.

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    Metaphors also make a comparison between two items, but they do not use as or like in the comparison. In a metaphor, one item is said to be something, that two items are equal, but this equality is not to be taken literally. Sometimes the comparison in a metaphor is clearly articulated. Other times, the comparison is implied.

    • The man was a hungry bear, a prowling lion looking for prey.
    • She jumped into a circus of activity once school started.
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    How to Teach Metaphors

    Give your students some examples of metaphors and discuss together what they mean. Make sure your students understand how two items are being compared without using the words like or as. Then challenge your students to create their own metaphors. One popular way to use metaphors is in describing people. Have students work in pairs to list fifteen personality traits. Then, have the pair choose eight of those to use as inspiration for their own metaphors. Have students start by choosing a personality trait, for example, loud. Then have students make a list of a few items that are loud – a thunderstorm, a party, an elephant, etc. Students should then use one of those items as inspiration to write a sentence containing a metaphor.

    • His voice was thunder, rattling the windows and the doors of the classroom.

    Give students a chance to share their favorite metaphors with the rest of the class. If your class is creative, give them a chance to illustrate their metaphors in a humorous way and display them in your classroom.

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    Personification is not used to describe people. Instead, personification is used to describe an animal or an object. In personification, an inhuman item is given human characteristics. Weather can be described with human characteristics, for examples. Likewise, animals are good subjects of personification.

    • The trees moaned in the wind. Their arms reached for someone they had lost.
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    How to Teach Personification

    Poetry is a great resource for personification. Because every word in a poem is carefully chosen, personification can pack a descriptive punch in just a few words. I like to use a jigsaw style activity when I teach personification to my students. I divide my class into three groups and give each group copies of one of the following poems: April Rain Song, The Sun, and The Sky is Low. I have groups work together to first define any unfamiliar vocabulary and then to find and highlight any human attributes used to describe the weather in their poem. I then break students into groups of three making sure each person has studied a different poem. Students share their poems with their new groups and point out the any personification in the poem. I ask these same groups to then talk about how the personification each poet used helps create an overall feel to the poem. Finally, I challenge students to write their own poem about the weather using personification. If you are teaching younger students, give your class a chance to illustrate their poems and then post them on a bulletin board titled “Whatever the Weather”.

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    Idioms are language specific phrases that mean something other than their literal meaning. ESL students need lots of opportunities to practice idioms since ultimately learning idioms means memorizing them. Some common examples of idioms are

    • Drinks are on the house.
    • He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

    Though you can coach students to understand some idioms based on their parts (the house is another word for the business, silver spoons are something the wealthy might have but not the average person) the best way for students to learn idioms is through practice.

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    How to Teach Idioms

    With a little effort, you can find many idiom exercises for ESL students. One of my favorites is to give students a list of English idioms and have them guess at the meanings. I break my students into groups of three or four and give them a list of about twenty idioms. I ask the groups to discuss each idiom and guess what it might mean. They will know some of them already, but many of the idioms will be unfamiliar. After 15-20 minutes of discussion, I give my students a list in random order of what the idioms on their sheets mean. I challenge my groups to match the meanings to the correct idioms. This exercise is a challenge for ESL students, but it is also fun. I like to watch students’ faces as they puzzle out what these crazy English phrases really mean. I wrap up the activity by going through the idioms and giving students the correct meanings and encouraging students to share some of their favorite idioms from their native languages. If you like, you can do this exercise multiple times giving students a different list of idioms for each discussion.

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    A hyperbole is an exaggeration, a description taken to the extreme and not meant to be taken literally, instead intended to paint a picture for the listener.

    • This backpack weighs a ton.
    • I haven’t been to this restaurant in forever.

    Your students should be able to recognize hyperbole by the extreme exaggeration. Often, the literal meaning of hyperboles are physically impossible.

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    How to Teach Hyperbole

    Give your students some examples of popular hyperboles. You can find a list here or compile your own. Have students discuss in pairs what each of these phrases means. Then challenge your students to write a skit in which one character only speaks in hyperboles. The skit should be two people discussing a problem that might be common among your students: too much homework, asking a girl out on a date, or trying to understand American culture, for example. Have students perform their skits for the class. After each skit, as the audience to give examples of hyperbole that were used in the skit.

Understanding the literal meaning of English is not enough when figurative language comes into play. Make sure your students are prepared to tackle this new level of language by reviewing and practicing these five types of figurative language in English.

What are your favorite activities for teaching figurative language?

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